The people of Wyoming are on the verge of losing one of their university’s most highly regarded academic programs — a celebrated network of faculty and graduate students that has provided thousands of undergraduates with a vital skill in today’s world.
We get it: Wyoming is in a world of fiscal hurt. The governor has ordered UW to cut its budget by 10% this year and again next year. The dean of Arts & Sciences proposed absorbing the initial hit to the university’s largest college through vacant positions and retirements. However, the faculty were told the university president rejected this plan and demanded the removal of active faculty lines (there are many other apparently unconsidered alternatives).
The Creative Writing program has been identified as one of two units (the other being American Studies) in the College of Arts & Sciences to undergo an ill-defined process intended to culminate in the elimination of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing — and the consequent firing of at least three tenure-track faculty. No rationale has been offered for why a nationally ranked program is on the chopping block.
Our story — and yours
The program in Creative Writing was founded in 2004 within the English Department. Its reputation grew rapidly and the program was selected to receive support from the Wyoming Excellence Fund. By 2015, the increasing success of the program justified its autonomy as a stand-alone unit. We had risen into national prominence by stewarding (y)our funds carefully and building bridges to other departments through interdisciplinary collaborations with 18 units around campus (including the development and delivery of a customized writing course for the School of Energy Resources) and various programs around the state (such as the Wyoming Humanities and Wyoming Arts Councils). In a typical year, our faculty and writers-in-residence gave 30 public lectures or readings in a dozen communities to more than 1,000 citizens.
At the undergraduate level, the Creative Writing program developed courses in poetry, fiction and nonfiction. In short order, we grew into the fifth largest undergraduate minor at UW with 40-50 students. The minor is an ideal complement to virtually any major — including STEM majors, where creative writing can be a highly marketable, valued-added skill. And we began to lay the groundwork for an exciting major of our own.
At the graduate level, the MFA program was ranked 21st in the nation (top 10 in nonfiction) out of more than 200 competitors. We typically received about 300 applications per year for just nine, funded assistantships. As such, we were the 19th most selective program in the country. Moreover, ours was among the most diverse and inclusive graduate programs on campus. Our graduate students regularly garnered teaching awards for their exceptional work with students in Freshman Composition.
In short, some of the very best young writers in the nation taught more than 10,000 of Wyoming’s undergraduates how to become better writers. Our alumni worked as editors, directors of writing residencies, reporters (e.g., WHYY in Philadelphia and KUWR in Wyoming), successful freelancers and faculty at six universities. They were publishing award-winning books, along with essays and stories in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Orion, Harper’s, Salon and Discover.
And then came the first of Wyoming’s financial crises. The university decided to absorb a severe cut to the Wyoming Excellence Fund by reducing Creative Writing’s budget by 95%. We had put our monies into supporting students and attracting eminent writers from around the nation (e.g., John D’Agata, Philip Gourevitch, Edward P. Jones, Claudia Rankine, Rebecca Solnit, Colson Whitehead, Joy Williams and Terry Tempest Williams) to spend a year working with our young writers and to speak to audiences across the state. But other units had each invested in hiring a single, tenured “excellence chair,” rather than bringing in a series of nationally acclaimed scholars to mentor their students, so saving these more conventional, permanent positions was deemed essential.
We lost a great deal, but we rallied around innovative approaches such as focusing on prose while reluctantly abandoning poetry in our MFA program, using technology to bring high-profile writers to our students (long before the pandemic necessitated such virtual communications), committing to a “writing for public audiences” approach (which involved bringing into the program affiliate faculty from programs such as African American & Diaspora Studies, Latina/o Studies, Native American & Indigenous Studies, Gender & Women’s Studies, History, Law, International Studies and Political Science). We also pursued new lines of support, such as private donors and tuition from on-line teaching. And we made the best of being merged into what became the Department of Visual & Literary Arts.
Then came the downturn of coal revenues and the pandemic.
Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory
So, why does the university now plan to eliminate the Creative Writing program and its dedicated faculty? The answer can’t possibly lie in the quality of those professors, who have published more than 70 books and been honored as recipients or finalists for programs such as the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, Fulbright Distinguished Lectureship, National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, Penn/Faulkner Award, Best American Science and Nature Writing Award and National Magazine Award.
Perhaps the answer lies in quantity. As a studio-based program in the arts involving small, intense workshops to develop world-class writers, we don’t teach classes with dozens or hundreds of students. But that can be said of many academic programs — including several in STEM fields. (I won’t name names as we gain nothing by throwing our colleagues under the fiscal bus). Nor does the quantity of money seem a reasonable explanation, given that the salary savings from the faculty eliminations would add up to about half of the UW president’s compensation (or perhaps the salary of one of UW’s 17 vice and associate-vice presidents) and less than a fifth of the football coach’s salary.
Rather, I think that the decision is a matter of raw, amoral expediency. As W. Somerset Maugham observed, “The most useful thing about a principle is that it can always be sacrificed to expediency.” Eliminating an academic program and its faculty is a strategy designed to show the Legislature that the university is willing to eat its own in order to please the politicians and that the new president is capable of making apparently hard (but politically painless) decisions.
The socioeconomic calculation was perhaps easy to compute. The university does not highly value the arts, as evidenced by much higher teaching loads and lower salaries than those afforded to STEM faculty (which is not unusual in higher education). And the arts are hardly at the top of the Legislature’s funding priorities, with the Wyoming Arts Council receiving about 0.07% of the state’s budget.
Perhaps the creative writing faculty and our students have done ourselves no favors by publishing essays, articles and books that are critical of powerful individuals and structures. However, our task as writers is the pursuit of beauty, truth and right — and this may not align with corporate profits, legislative orthodoxy and status quo ideology. I don’t want to believe that the cut is political retribution, although those in power have demonstrated their willingness to punish troublemakers. Rather, I believe that the university’s course of action is based on the assumption that there will be little or no blowback.
That’s where you come in. Wyoming citizens have influence that those of us inside the institution lack. In stark terms, you have the financial, political and social capacity to force the institution to reconsider the path that is rapidly unfolding. Of course, we’ll do our best to defend the program in terms of our acclaimed teaching and writing. But these arguments will matter little without substantive consequences to the university should Creative Writing be eliminated.
I suspect the institution will not be happy to have lowly faculty appealing to the state’s citizenry on behalf of the arts. However, writing is what we do and ours is a truly existential crisis, so there is nothing more to lose if we disappear from the campus. I know that far bigger issues certainly warrant your attention; the survival of a rather small but highly distinguished arts program in Wyoming hardly stacks up against the pandemic and recession. But it could make all the difference if you found the time to communicate with the UW Board of Trustees, president and the (acting) dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. Or send your support to an email dedicated to public feedback: [email protected].